A city in all dimensions

A review essay on I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York, with forwards by Sean Corcoran and Daniel Okrent
(Thames & Hudson, 176 pp, November 2017)

by Ian Garrick Mason


As both a photographer and filmmaker I’ve visited New York City regularly in the last couple of years, and each time have had to grapple not only with the city’s size and complexity, but also – this is the greater challenge – with the cultural legacy it has long possessed as one of the world’s most depicted cities. The fear of producing clichéd work about the city is undoubtedly in the back of most serious photographers’ minds, and overcoming it requires time and a willingness to experiment. New York allows itself to appear unique again only when the photographer’s own way of seeing it is brought to bear.

Todd Webb was one of the most significant contributors to the city’s rich photographic inheritance. Arriving in New York immediately after serving as a Navy photographer in World War II, Webb was soon adopted by an artistic circle that included Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothy Norman, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Gordon Parks, and Georgia O’Keeffe. His first museum exhibition occurred after barely a year there – it was mounted by the Museum of the City of New York in the fall of 1946 – and Webb would go on to participate in major exhibitions (including the Museum of Modern Art’s The Family of Man in 1955) and publish books of his work almost up until his death seventeen years ago at the age of 94. Over his long career – or long second career, since before WWII he had been at times a stock broker, gold prospector, and forest surveyor – he photographed Paris, the pioneer trails that spanned the continental United States, the nineteenth-century homes of Texas, and much else. Yet his early work on New York City remains among his most influential.

As other photographers did, Webb had to find his own way to engage the city. In his unpublished memoirs (quoted in MCNY curator Sean Corcoran’s informative introduction to the recently published collection I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York), Webb commented on his first visit to the area between Greenwich Village and Chinatown: “There are street markets, pushcarts parked end to end in front of endless rows of small stores. Both the stores and the pushcarts sell fruits, vegetables, neckties, fish, and everything under the sun. The smells, the noise, and the whole feel of the place are just not describable and I couldn’t photograph it. But I want to go back and try.”

He did go back and try – and did so with discipline and deliberation. This was partly driven by practicality: the postwar economy had trouble meeting the demand for camera film, so every shot he made had to count, and the bulk of Webb’s large-format, tripod-mounted camera lent itself more to planned and carefully-composed picture taking, rather than to in-the-moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson-like snaps (though with the purchase of a handheld camera, these too would soon appear in his work).

It is Webb’s photographs, however, that reflect the aesthetic and personal foundations of his steady-handed approach to depicting the city. Depicting? A better word would be characterizing, because so many of his images emphasize the dimensionality of New York’s built environment, the physical nature of the stage within which its characters live out their lives.

Depth and distance is one such dimension. Much of Manhattan is a landscape of artificial canyons, but rather than centering its streets in his frame – which would fix the eye of a viewer solely on a spectacle of symmetry – he lets his streets run off obliquely into the distance, so the eye has to work to follow them as they recede across the shot, taking in other details in doing so. He frequently takes advantage of the natural tendency of atmosphere to lighten objects in the distance; his 1948 photo of Centre Street at Leonard Street shows cars in front of a state government building in crisp, high-contrast tones, with two gothic skyscrapers behind them serving as an attenuated backdrop that would be at home in an expensive theatre production. The 1946 cityscape he shot of mid-town and Lower Manhattan from the Empire State Building has a drama to it that derives not just from the scope of what can be seen, but from the bright hazy rays of a sun setting offstage being split by skyscrapers into shafts, which then falter and dim as they reach the shadowed chasms between the buildings nearby. From distant light to enveloping dark: there’s an almost biblical feel to the composition.

The emphasis on longitudinal distance in so many pictures is complemented by a focus on vertical layers – a geologic stacking – in others. Many compositions break neatly in half: a row of boys hanging out against the wall of a marine supply store near the Fulton fish market, beneath a window lined with its own rows of hurricane lamps, life preservers, and buoys. Others, into three or more levels. At the bottom of one photograph he shows us a huge crowd behind barriers in Times Square, waiting for the start of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; one strata above looms a mammoth cinema awning promoting an Alan Ladd-Dorothy Lamour film; a final level shows the building’s decorated entrance arch (topping out four stories up) and windows to either side of it. Enjoyably, and typically for Webb, in one of these windows we can see children, waiting eagerly for the same parade. Webb’s photography often takes the viewer on a journey – into the distance or up into the heights – and as it leads the eye, it finds itself able both to teach and to delight.

Complementing his aesthetic tendency to characterize the city as a physical environment was Todd Webb’s deep interest in people and how they lived. Unlike the street photographers of later eras, who often concentrated on the quirky, the shocking, and the ephemeral, Webb’s focus was on average people in the midst of their daily lives. A young woman gazing adoringly at her date in front of a theatre; a girl at an ice cream stand carefully ensuring her little sister eats all of her snow cone; a snoozing couple awkwardly entangled together on a Coney Island beach next to their un-entangled friend. A few images – one shows a little girl on a curb staring at an overweight pushcart vendor who has half-climbed, frog-like, into his cart – have an almost-too-perfect feeling to them, as if they’re just about to turn into a Norman Rockwell painting. They’re no less enjoyable for that, however.

Webb was as fascinated by the signs made by humans as he was by humans themselves. For us, looking at these photographs seventy years after they were shot, the billboards and wall advertisements and handwritten notices provide a voice to otherwise mute images. We see the kinds of messages that stood out on a given street: the words that are most prominent at Third Avenue and 42nd Street are on signs saying “Liquor Store”, “Cigars”, “Bar”. Over on Fifth Avenue is a third-floor window with “Dan T. Smith, Detective Bureau” engraved on it, as if copied from a Raymond Chandler novel. On the stairs to the 125th Street El Station, a sign warns that “SPITTING ON FLOOR OF CARS, STATION STAIRS & PLATFORMS is FORBIDDEN”. A handwritten note taped to a storefront window informs us in plain-spoken, pragmatic English without a hint of modern euphemism: “Tailor is dead. But business will be carried on as usual by son.”

Signs are also one part of what to my mind is the most intellectually engaging aspect of Webb’s photography, which is his ability to show (or when not directly showing, to hint at) different aspects of a specific historical moment in the life of a city. Again and again he shows us “Welcome Home” signs for returning troops, and their numbers remind us of how many residents left their homes to fight in the Second World War (in fact 900,000 New Yorkers served, according to the New-York Historical Society, out of a city population of 7.5 million). Some signs are the beginnings of stories we can’t finish: a banner on McSorley’s Old Ale House says “Welcome Home McSorley Boys”, and we are left to wonder if all of the McSorley boys made it home, or just a couple of them. And to wonder what shape they came home in.

Webb’s portrait of the age is created out of more than signs. A young soldier in glasses leans listlessly against a door frame on Amsterdam Avenue, the building fronts behind him saturated in chipper advertising messages. A solidly-built man in a white t-shirt, who looks as though he might have been lugging a machine gun in the Pacific theatre only a year or two before, weighs bags of grapes for a customer in an outdoor market. And while other New Yorkers caught in Webb’s frame ignore him or look at him with curiosity or friendliness, men in their twenties and thirties stare back warily, without even the trace of a smile.

Webb photographed a time of peace, but not of plenty. There are loan offices everywhere in his pictures, promising money against diamonds, fur coats, tools, equipment – and offering discounted sales on similar collateral that previous customers had forfeited. His photograph of a man sleeping on the sidewalk outside a pharmacy is particularly arresting. The man is in his thirties or forties: he has decent clothes on, his hair was recently cut, there’s no bottle of booze in a paper bag nearby to “explain” his situation. He seems simply to have run out of money and has curled up on the pavement to sleep, one hand shoved into his pocket for warmth. Three young boys stand next to him, arms around each other, showing off their camaraderie. They are focused on the camera.

The past recedes from us more rapidly than we think, replaced in our minds by novels and movies and cable series set in that past, but simplifying and distorting it to narrative ends. The less-exciting (or too-complicated) parts get left out altogether: between the epic good vs. evil tale of World War II and the pastel-hued suburbanism of the 1950s that we love to deride, the immediate postwar years have drifted into shadow for us, forgotten. But because of Todd Webb’s persistent and clear-eyed curiosity about the people and city of New York, and his disciplined use of photography as means to understand both, those years remain quietly alive in this book, waiting for us to know them again.

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